Senate panel approves bill to speed up driverless cars

Senate panel approves bill to speed up driverless cars
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A Senate panel approved bipartisan legislation on Wednesday to pave the way for driverless cars, representing the latest congressional step to address the emerging technology.

After months of debate over whether to include trucks and buses in the measure, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee agreed to advance a bill that would only remove certain obstacles for getting self-driving cars on the roads.

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The measure, authored by Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneOvernight Tech: Senate panel subpoenaed ex-Yahoo chief | Twitter gives all users 280 characters | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | EU wants tax answers from Apple Overnight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny Former Yahoo CEO subpoenaed to appear before Congress MORE (R-S.D.) and Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersGOP tax bill has transportation advocates scrambling GOP tax bill ends electric vehicle tax credit, overhauls other energy taxes Cities grapple with how to protect soft targets from new attacks MORE (D-Mich.), would help the car industry speed up the deployment and testing of autonomous vehicles by gradually waiving traditional automobile standards — like steering wheels and brake pedals — for up to 80,000 vehicles per manufacturer after three years.

The bill now heads to the floor, where other senators may have an opportunity to offer amendments. It could come up for a vote in between the budget resolution and tax reform, Thune said.

“We’re going to have to try to find a place to slot it. We’ll have to work with the leader to see if there is a time where we can get it considered,” Thune told reporters after the meeting.

“I suspect that this will be a bill that will take some floor time. It would be nice if we could pass it by unanimous consent, but I think that’s unrealistic."

Congress has been racing to address autonomous vehicle technology as automakers are pledging aggressive timelines to bring self-driving cars to the market. There are currently no federal safety standards specifically governing driverless vehicle technology, including software and sensors.

Across the Capitol, the House already passed its own driverless car legislation. The Senate and House bills could be packaged together in some form, which would become the nation’s first-ever autonomous vehicle laws.

But even though the Senate bill advanced on a breezy, bipartisan vote, bill sponsors and their staff spent months sorting through thorny issues behind the scenes, even making last-minute technical changes until the early morning hours on Wednesday.

Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonOvernight Tech: Senate panel subpoenaed ex-Yahoo chief | Twitter gives all users 280 characters | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | EU wants tax answers from Apple Overnight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny Former Yahoo CEO subpoenaed to appear before Congress MORE (D-Fla.), ranking member on the panel, even joked that Peters may finally shave his beard now that the bill has passed the committee.

“It turned gray during the discussions,” Peters quipped back.

One of the biggest points of contention was whether to include trucks and other large commercial motor vehicles in the bill.

Trucking is one of the primary industries that is expected to be largely transformed by automated vehicles, with companies like Uber already jumping into the long-haul driverless trucking space.

Trucking unions are concerned about the effect that disrupting the status quo would have on employment, while industry groups argued that cars and trucks should be covered by the same framework.

Thune and other Republicans had pushed to include trucking in the Senate bill, but Peters and Democrats wanted to maintain the status quo. Ultimately, Peters won out — but that could change on the Senate floor.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) offered an amendment that would have added commercial motor vehicles to the measure, but he withdrew it, citing a lack of committee support.

“Without this amendment, many motor vehicles, including delivery trucks, emergency vehicles and tractor-trailers, would be excluded,” Inhofe said. “Treating cars and trucks differently ... will hinder efforts to develop and adopt newer and safer technology.”

On the safety side, consumer advocates are worried that the bill’s exemption language is too broad and would allow manufacturers to opt out of safety features like air bags. They also worry that the legislation will allow manufacturers to rush to market before the technology is ready.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) offered, and withdrew, an amendment that would have required a driver behind the wheel of autonomous vehicles, even for the highest levels of automation.

But both Thune and Nelson said the provision would undermine their entire effort.

“The headline tomorrow would read, ‘Senate mandates drivers in driverless cars,’” Thune said. “I don’t think that’s the headline we want coming out of this hearing.”

Under the bill, the Department of Transportation (DOT) would have the authority over setting safety standards for the industry, pre-empting a patchwork of varying state laws.

State and local authorities will continue to govern traffic safety, vehicle registration and law enforcement issues.

The bill would also require the DOT to work with manufacturers to set cybersecurity standards.

Senators adopted over two-dozen amendments, including provisions that would require a study on the environmental impacts of putting more driverless cars on the road; require automakers to educate the public about the limitations and abilities of the technology; and require the DOT to develop resources to help consumers minimize cybersecurity risks.

—Harper Neidig contributed to this report